On Fanny's 'Nest of Comforts': a Relevant Poem by Emily Bronte

I here unite several threads we have been weaving-- Charlotte Bronte's correspondence with Robert Southey wherein while she wrote of how she found Austen's novels yet another instance of that repression, claustrophobia, and cool indifference to the needs of her nature and her detestation of the womanly ideal which George Eliot's significant other, Henry Lewes was trying to enforce on her not only by telling her to read "dear Jane" (as he would have seen her), but also by telling her a profession was not for a woman, she had better go home and mind her sewing, and, as others said, her book was even strangely (as he and others saw it) morbid, subversive, radical; Charlotte's Jane Eyre which rehearses Austen's Mansfield Park in a Gothic romantic mode of high theatrics rooted in a quiet understanding of the desperate circumstances in which most women lived; the source and nature of Fanny Price's retreats into that cold attic with its window on the park and many books and relics of the past for her to remember by, Fanny's imaginative responsiveness not only to her dense relatives but to the natural world and the young people she finds herself forcibly alienated from not only by virtue of her superior insight but by her poverty, consequent lack of prestige, and and whole upbringing--all these I bring together in one poem, Emily Bronte's To Imagination. I would here call particular attention to stanza two where we see the poet withdraw from society into a world where she can dictate how she will pass her hours, spend her life. It was written September 3, 1844:

"When weary with the long day's care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost, and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again--
O my true friend, I am not lone
While thou canst speak with such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
They world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it that all around
Danger and grief and darkness lie,
If but within our bosom's bound
We hold a bright unsullied sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days?

Reason indeed may oft complain
For Nature's sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy newly blown.

But thou art ever there to bring
The hovering visions back and breathe
New glories o'er the blighted spring
And call a lovelier life from death,
And whisper with a voice divine
Of real worlds as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet still in evening's quiet hour
With never-failing thankfulness
I welcome thee, benignant power,
Sure solacer of human cares
And brighter hope when hope despairs."

Dorothy Willis's game with Anne de Bourgh yesterday emboldens me to play similarly with the above. We do not know if Emily Bronte ever read Austen; she was spared someone throwing Austen at her as an icon of a repressive materialistic prestige-ridden and sexist world. She never appealed to the publishers of her world in the manner of Bronte. She knew better.

But let us place Austen's Fanny, our Fanny in the place of Emily Bronte's female persona. Fanny is weary with her long day's care--in many chapters of the novel so we find her. She longs for the one kind voice she knows--Edward's, his meaning may disappoint but his "tone" does not. I don't know that Fanny sees the world without as hopeless except to her, but that's enough and she "doubly prizes" that world within--so much so she is determined to show it to Susan. That is a world "where guile and hate and doubt"--what Fanny sees in the rehearsals of that awful play, where "cold suspicion" never rise--nor the indifference of her own family. What matters it outside then.

So off she goes Susan in tow to the local lending library to teach Susan, to give, and to withstand with her, and teach her how to withstand as she does. Of course I also like the realism of Austen's approach--without Sir Thomas's allowance to Fanny saved up this would not have been possible, but that's another realm Emily is not dealing in her poetry. Reason may complain "for Nature's sad reality" and "tell the suffering heart how vain/Its cherished dreams must always be." I find a new definition of Truth in this poem which is not Austen's, it is the idea of the world's false truth; Austen would have used the word more in the Johnsonian sense of universal truth, and I'm not sure what she would have made of Bronte's penultimate stanza except to put it in a Christian framework (which is not so far from Bronte's meaning as some metaphysical critics would like to think).

But Austen's Fanny can be seen in the final stanza. She would not trust to "phantom bliss" of dreams, to visions, or self entirely, but "still in evening's quiet hour/With never-failing thankfulness" welcome some "benignant power/Surer solacer of human cares/And brighter hope when hope despairs." This might be Nature (as in Wordsworth) or the Christian God (though that doesn't fit because we've just rejected visions), or some force in the universe which unites the soul to it or the the love of the young man or maybe just peace, "the evening's quiet hour" itself.

As someone who loves the Bronte books and the Austen, I submit they are far more alike than people suppose. Charlotte Bronte was an exacerbated irritated woman and in public, at a famous dinner I remember would never speak a word. Austen too it is said grew silent in public when older. Like Fanny Price they had learned, maybe to their regret too, "the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure." Thus they turned to the imagination: "The world within I doubly prize."

And yes indeed I'll vouch for that, "from pain to pain/And lost, and ready to despair/Thy kind voice calls me back..." This is a view of society and the individual and that individual finding meaning I get. No problem.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 30 January 2003